A Theory of Trump’s Immigration Rhetoric
While immigration has been a topic of debate in this country for many decades, the 2015 announcement of Donald Trump’s candidacy for the President, which featured the president deriding Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, sparked an immediate concern: will a candidate for president openly running on dehumanizing rhetoric toward migrants of Latino origin have a real world impact?
A common response to the extreme rhetoric spoken by the president and his advisors is to ignore it — after all, words mean little compared to actions, and actions are what really count. And while the immigration policies the administration has implemented are meaningful in that sense and have inflicted measurable, lasting harm to men, women, and children alike, I am interested in the way the White House frames those brutal policies. Does the framing matter? Does it make things worse? And if so, can it be countered?
In the four years since Trump’s initial speech, both his campaign and his administration have engaged in an ongoing disinformation campaign against immigrants of Latino heritage. He tweets a non-stop string of lies, more than 10,000 of them since his inauguration, and many of them use dehumanizing language to describe (non-white) immigrants and the communities where (non-white) immigrants tend to live. Before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump latched onto the story of a “caravan” of migrants fleeing violence in Central America and heading north to seek asylum in the U.S. — a fear-mongering campaign based on nothing more than panic about brown people. Even so, Trump successfully used the fear he drummed up over this “caravan” to send U.S. troops to the border in a move of dubious legality (especially given its usage as a campaign stunt).
For every brutal policy designed to strip people of their dignity, safety, and health, one can find language issued by the government to justify such treatment. The administration has buttressed its harsh rhetoric against immigrants with a campaign to encourage law enforcement brutality (in a 2017 speech, he called people of latino descent “animals” and urged the police to be more violent toward them). This is justified by claims that law enforcement — primarily Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, are “only enforcing the law” — even when those campaigns violate the law and are stymied by court orders. The administration’s actions also include human rights violations like child separation, decrepit conditions in detention, constant violations of court orders to safeguard the basic rights of detainees, and dozens of deaths due to negligent care — all justified by appeals to either the law or the minority party’s “refusal” to pass additional laws despite not controlling the Senate or the White House.
Some of these actions are less direct in their effect. The ICE “enforcement” campaign has successfully made more Latinos afraid for their personal safety than any time in the last decade, and there as been a dramatic rise in hate crimes against people perceived to be of Latino origin since Trump’s inauguration as President.
But that doesn’t mean the two are connected — after all, correlation is real, and two things can happen at once without one causing the other. Is there a way to show that the worsening state of the Latino community, both from direct police action and in a broader social sense, is linked to the President’s rhetoric? There is substantial research that elite opinion can drive public opinion about immigration and national identity — with exclusionary messages being much easier to seed into the public discourse than unifying messaging. So what is the connection? After all, many Latinos already felt fear and alienation from mainstream American society due to immigration enforcement under previous presidents. Can you really say that the current low state is because of Trump and not a trend that was already in place?
This is a complicated question, but one for which there is research that can help us understand.
Overview: Presidential Rhetoric
Political scientists have found mixed evidence that the language choices employed by the “bully pulpit” of the White House can affect public attitudes toward questions of public policy – particularly in terms of priming and agenda setting in media coverage. Furthermore, the degree to which presidential rhetoric really does affect public attitudes on a given topic is not always clear.
In some cases, presidential rhetoric can appeal to a wide variety of people and thus shift public attitudes, but the effect is not consistent: the circumstances have to be just right in order to meaningfully shift sentiment. The way in which presidential rhetoric is structured can also have an effect, whereby an administration adopting simplified, anti-intellectual language on a policy can affect public attitudes, especially amongst those already inclined to support and believe him. This means President Trump is well suited to shifting public attitudes, as his use of simplified, anti-intellectual populist language is inherent to his appeal in many quarters.
And it’s important to keep in mind that Trump’s appeal to the Republican Party is more than his ability to win election: Republicans tend to like Trump more after he says something racist. Beyond ideology, there is also money: one of the president’s most important backers, Robert Mercer — responsible for placing Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway with the campaign — is a direct beneficiary of a hardline stance on immigration (his hedge fund is heavily invested in the private companies that operate prisons and immigrant detention camps for the government). This suggests that Trump’s already hostile attitude toward immigration was appealing for both the base of the party and for at least one powerful kingmaker in Republican circles — but that doesn’t establish causality between his language and the lived experiences of Latinos.
There is evidence that the partisan makeup of an audience can determine how receptive it is to White House rhetoric on immigration in particular – unsurprisingly, partisans tend to agree with their own party more strongly than non-partisans. Thus, while many in the party already agreed with his hardline stances on immigration, the president is almost certainly further radicalizing Republican attitudes toward immigration in an intentional way. It is unclear, however, whether the rhetoric used by the White House is altering broader public attitudes toward immigration in general. While a majority of Americans still broadly favor immigration, there is a widening gap between the parties that could be masking a deeper movement in attitudes. The data just aren’t there yet.
So, let’s explore how this whole thing works! The rest of this essay will explore some of the empirical research that analyzes how Presidential and elite rhetoric shape public attitudes, what role the media play, and whether there is something good people can do to oppose such divisive tactics.
Somewhat astonishingly, it remains controversial in some quarters to describe the president’s rhetoric as racist. News organizations have struggled with how to address language that is very clearly racist in its formulation (NPR parses the challenge as “using the word ’racist’ to describe the tweets, not the man who wrote them”). In fact, one of Trump’s innovations in presidential rhetoric is successfully disrupting the typical discourse of how we can approach describing language.
What makes Trump’s rhetoric so uniquely disruptive? One way to think about this is by examining just how strongly he breaks with more than a century of other presidents. In this regard, he is a uniquely destructive speaker: a 2017 analysis of just 100 days of his statements in office revealed a “break” from decades of “sanitized, prepackaged rhetoric of predecessors.” The researchers go on:
His apocalyptic contrasting of demise and deliverance, parsing of individuals as winners and losers, and demonization of those with whom he disagrees also differentiate Trump’s rhetorical repertoire from that of those who previously held the office… Finally, more so than past presidential contenders, when it serves his advantage, Trump questions the integrity of democratic institutions, some of which can hold a president accountable for abuse of power or misuse of evidence, including the electoral system, the courts, the justice system, and the media.<
In other words, his use of divisive speech toward immigrants who are not white is consistent with a broader “burn the boats” approach to Trumpian politics that is going to leave an indelible mark on American society. It is impossible to approach those words without acknowledging that they are, definitionally, racist. And this use to language to destroy and dehumanize non-white people, especially immigrants, is calculated, intentional, and working.
So, knowing that president Trump is a uniquely divisive president whose language is uniquely hateful, what can we learn by studying it in detail? For one, Trump’s racism taps into America’s original sin, which is the violent belief system of white supremacy. At its very core, the U.S. Constitution enshrines the supremacy of white men over black men and women as an institution so sacred it was defended for nearly a century before prompting the most destructive war the country has ever faced (and the descendants of the losers of that war still fly the flag of slavery, proudly, and expect others to believe it is really about “heritage”).
In fact, racist resentment toward minorities and anti-immigration beliefs are one of the strongest indicators of support for Trump, according to a massive 2018 study of survey data — even more so than outlawing abortion, which energized the evangelical base but remains a deeply unpopular idea in the broader electorate (and has its own heritage steeped in white supremacy as well).
Because of Trump’s direct line to this enduring artifact of American society, he resonates with a lot of people who might not otherwise find his style appealing (indeed most Republican opposition to him is aesthetic, rather than substantive — they think he’s crass, not that he’s wrong). It takes a lot of semantic twisting and turning to not describe the president’s racist language about immigrants as anything other than racist. Recently, his “go back where you came from” — directed at three women of color who were born here and one who’s been a citizen longer than the First Lady — is the most open embrace of this racism he has yet expressed. Trump’s own government, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission specifically lists it as discriminatory language.
Trump followed that up with a fascist rally where he nodded along with the crowd beying “send her back” about a sitting member of Congress who naturalized after she was admitted as a refugee (Trump disavowed the chant after he realized it played poorly in the media, then reversed his disavowal, because he really doesn’t disagree with it). His political rallies have become clear assertions that only whiteness counts as American, and any other skin color is less legitimate. That the entire Republican party has closed ranks to defend him while denying the plain spoken racism they represent suggests that countering this hate speech will not come from the political sphere. It has to come from elsewhere.
Internalizing the reality of an openly white supremacist presidency is not easy. No one really wants to admit that such a person could win an election — even those who study politics professionally (as Sam Page and Jason Dettmer, professors at University College London and the University of North Carolina, respectively, put it, “we underestimated the degree to which the RepublicanParty had become a proxy for white supremacy”). Indeed, Trump has run his administration as “white counter-revolutionary politics”, whereby he became the symbol of a sort of racial immune response by white people against marginalized groups gaining equality — something baked into that original sin of racism that characterized the formation of this country. This is not new territory for him — Donald Trump has been an infamously bigoted person for decades before he ran for president, but he only recently learned how to mobilize that racism to benefit himself. There is no separating his personhood from his racism, for they are the same.
All of this is to say that Trump’s anti-immigration language and policies don’t reflect some heightened concerns about the economic wellbeing of the ordinary Americans he claims are harmed by immigrants — his disastrous trade policies and the 2017 tax cut certainly are not targeted at helping ordinary Americans — rather, they reflect white racial resentment that “the others” are gaining on them and will soon be “overtaken.” And indeed, survey data show that Trump’s supporters are very much defined by this fear of a loss of status — mostly in terms of fearing a “minority majority country,” which means one that is less overwhelmingly white, but also more broadly fears about how one “cannot say” something racist anymore without facing backlash. (Why one would fear being a minority in an America that is supposedly not built on racist beliefs and systems is, of course, not discussed.)
By tapping into a primal pathology of American political life, one most people try not to acknowledge, Trump is “speaking the quiet parts aloud” — that is, he is plainly speaking to an agenda that is normally much easier to deny. And this lack of deniability makes his words powerful, as he is the most powerful person in the country telling people with violent, extremist views that they have legitimacy and are valued.
Hence, studying and understanding how Trump talks about immigration matters if we want to understand just how he is changing the American political landscape, and eventually have a plan for how to reverse the onslaught of racism. The racist language he has deployed to target immigrants and Latinos has had real consequences for people and materially affects their health.
Even a cursory glance at Trump’s language with regard to racial minorities reveals how deep-seated the racist phrases and beliefs are it is. Consider:
- Trump still insists the Central Park Five are guilty of murder despite copious physical and legal evidence they are not, because they are not white and therefore guilty. He has never recanted the 1989 ad he bought demanding their deaths as teenagers.
- His continued use of “Pocahontas” to refer to Elizabeth Warren (who does have some Native ancestry, though not enough to claim official heritage). Pocahontas was a teenager abducted by English settlers; to use her name as a slur is tapping into centuries of European mistreatment and genocide against native people.
- Then again, Trump has a decades-long history of racist language toward Native Americans — another data point that his language about immigrants is not rooted in economic concerns, but racial animus.
- Much like the Central Park Five, Trump falsely insists that Barack Obama was not a citizen of the United States despite copious evidence to the contrary. So-called “birtherism” is nakedly racist and widely debunked as false. He has begun deploying a similar line of attack against presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who is the child of dark-skinned immigrants.
- He has a decades-long history of discriminatory and predatory behavior toward black people, including when he called African Americans “lazy” in the early 1990s. The Department of Justice sued him twice over illegal discrimination toward black tenants in his buildings in New York.
- “Shithole countries.”
- Latinos, as well: “When Mexico sends its people, it is not sending their best… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And som, I assume, are good people.”
- Trump attacked a judge born in Indiana for being Mexican, and thus unable to rule fairly in the lawsuit over his ponzi scheme to defraud people through Trump University. Why would a judge of Mexican heritage be biased against him? See above.
- Attacking non-white Americans born here as having dual allegiance, which never making a similar comment toward white people of European descent, is a recurring theme.
- For example, Trump asked an intelligence analyst conducting a presidential daily briefing where she was “really” from even though she was born here and maintained a high level security clearance.
- Trump’s racism against people of Latino heritage is so entrenched many white audiences think yelling his name is the same as expressing anti-Latino racism.
- The Muslim travel ban was another racist attack on immigration.
- After a neo-nazi murdered a young woman in Charlottesville, Trump refused to condemn the swastikas and said there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the march.
- Trump pretended he didn’t know who former KKK leader David Duke was when he endorsed Trump in 2016. Trump’s family has a multigenerational relationship with the Klan.
That’s only a partial list, the largest whoppers. And despite that, people will still insist that he isn’t really racist. By some standards, he is simply incapable of racism, because the term “racist” is defined so specifically no one will ever truly meet it unless they literally don a white hood and burn a cross. However, after a certain point, a decades-long history of using “racially charged comments” toward non-white people simply becomes what it is: racism.
Being crystal clear about what Trump represents is important. There remains strong social stigma associated with open racism, which means using plain language to describe this language and these policies — as being rooted in racism — is so important. Despite this, too many people and institutions struggle with using plain language to describe what he does… including the media.
The media can frame how society views certain issues: they can inflame sentiment or tamp it down, depending on editorial choices, language, and coverage decisions. This is true of traditional broadcast media and papers, and it is true for online and social media-based outlets as well.
When it comes to covering the White House there is often a soft adversarial position taken — some decisions get challenged, but in the modern era White House correspondents have typically been chummy with the White House staff. This is both to gain access to sources as a part of “access journalism”, but also because in normal eras, presidents tend to speak publicly in a manner that is broadly in line with public opinion. There really isn’t normally a reason to be openly skeptical and hostile toward staff. While the Vietnam era broke from this trend and saw more skeptical coverage of the White House, the practice and ethics of journalism did not really change overall — investigative journalism continued to raise questions about administration conduct, but the beat reporters at the White House every day rarely challenged what their officials sources told them.
In a 2006 study, a researcher mapped the relationship between Presidential statements of public policy and public opinion from presidents Eisenhower to Clinton. He found that these presidents tended to remain mostly “congruent” with public opinion. In other words, the post-World War II presidents of the 20th century rarely strayed very far from the mainstream as expressed by public opinion polls. However, in the 21st century things started to change. Starting with the election of George W. Bush on the back of an unprecedented partisan intervention by the Supreme Court into the electoral process, one could argue that presidencies in the 21st century have been abnormal compared to the post-WWII norm (at least for Republicans, who haven’t won the popular vote for a first term president since 1988).
Consider the case of how George W. Bush promoted the invasion of Iraq in 2002. There is significant evidence that the Bush White House undertook a widespread campaign to manipulate media coverage in his first term during the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Just as importantly, the political media corps relied primarily on sources loyal to the White House in order to produce coverage of the run-up to the war — that access journalism, mentioned above. The end result was a generally false portrait of the stakes, issues, and early outcomes. In other words, the president successfully whipped up war mania and the press went along with it because they weren’t skeptical enough.
Under Barrack Obama this continued, though in a less pernicious manner. During his administration, Ben Rhodes, whose mother got him a job on the 9/11 commission before he became a speechwriter for the President and then, inexplicably, the Deputy National Security Adviser, was instrumental in shaping how the White House related to the press. In a brutal 2016 profile, Rhodes voices open contempt for the journalists covering the White House and foreign policy in Washington, DC and explained how he intentionally worked to manipulate them into giving a policy better coverage (there is a lot more to this process, but that isn’t the point here). While Rhodes tried to walk back his comments, the sting they left was real — and revealed a troubling relationship between even a liberal administration and the press.
Donald Trump has carried Rhode’s contempt for the media into a high art form, and has made his distaste for the First Amendment — especially the media that cover his administration — a cornerstone of his presidency. To put it plainly, calling the media an “enemy of the people” is not only a broadside on the constitution (which enshrines the roll of the media as sacred), it echoes the language of totalitarianism. Trump’s hatred of, and efforts to manipulate, the media matter a lot when it comes to understanding how he can shape policy issues like immigration. From the racist way Trump speaks about immigrants (literally where brown immigrants are bad and white immigrants are good) to the way he has enabled the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s bald-faced lying about its policies to actively cause physical and psychological harm to migrants in detention, Trump’s hostility to both the media and to immigration makes his administration a unique opportunity to think through how the President’s language has an effect on the way immigration gets covered.
In general, media coverage of presidential speechmaking creates a heightened awareness of the words the president uses to discuss policy issues. This means that the way Trump chooses to talk about a topic itself creates coverage — and when he uses or approves of patently racist, fear-mongering language to discuss immigration the media that’s dutifully covers him will amplify that language to the public at large. This is despite the fact that overall media coverage of the White House is in historic decline (hurried along by the White House opting out of press conferences to little outcry).
Even so, public speeches and statements can still generate substantial coverage and public discussion – especially when controversial. And Trump loves controversy.
The way the media frame presidential remarks can prime the public to accept or reject policy proposals. Thus, when the press covers Trump rallies as if he were a normal aspirational figure, and not one who rode a wave of racist xenophobia to the White House, it matters. The way the media cover the president still plays a powerful shaping role for how the public reacts. Normalization is a real process and it can have a powerful effect on the country.
Many journalists are familiar with the conundrum of covering white supremacy and right wing violence — the act of coverage might promote and spread it as a belief system. It can also go the other way, as well: coverage framed as negative (versus neutral or positive) can fuel public sentiment against a policy. For immigration, the widespread, negative coverage of the “family separation” policy at the southern border helped to drive a massive backlash that led to the policy’s reversal. From the other side, framing the immigration challenge at the border as a security crisis, as opposed to a humanitarian one, can dramatically affect how people approach the topic.
The negativity of framing is important to how media shape attitudes. There is a growing body of evidence that divisive rhetoric is more effective at shaping opinion that inclusive rhetoric, and when the press covers or even amplifies divisive rhetoric, like what Trump used to rally his base both during the election and during his administration, it resonates more powerfully than inclusive rhetoric. Thus, when the media amplify abusive, dehumanizing, or racist speech coming from Trump, even when framed as “neutral” coverage of the “controversy,” Trump’s divisiveness becomes more powerful. The tautology of coverage applies here: by definition, if the media are covering something it is because they think it is important, so therefore covering an act of abuse or a controversy can amplify its importance to the public – creating a feedback loop whereby even mentioning an issue makes it seem more important to people.
This is where Trump’s rhetoric on immigration becomes worrisome. Experimental data suggests that it is possible for a president to use the language of moral panic to prime the public to share his perception of a policy issue that he and his party “owns.” The previous four years of inflammatory statements has given Trump ownership of immigration as a policy area — something the Democrats are desperately trying to claw back during the primary. The president has successfully turned immigration, despite historically low levels of illegal crossings, into a moral panic. Previous presidents, perhaps unintentionally, have deployed the language of moral panic to shape how the public perceives and therefore reacts to things like the war on drugs, the war on Iraq, the war on crime (see a pattern yet?), and now on immigration.
So there is a process by which a president enjoys unique space to prime the public to embrace controversy by talking about a topic he is seen to “own” — and what topic does Trump “own” more than immigration? — along with a lot of evidence that presidents and their staff can use the language of moral panic to shape public opinion on that topic. Make no mistake: Trump intentionally deploys the language of moral panic to talk about immigration (and sadly, draws on a long history of moral panic about immigration in America).
A journalist who wants to cover this without making the anti-immigration hysteria worse has few mechanisms to counteract the phenomenon. In the modern, fractured media environment, demagogues are more easily able to insert their ideas into public opinion under the disguise of open discourse. We are all familiar with the nasty trolls who antagonize people with targeted hate speech then whine that about the right to free speech being suppressed when faced with public opprobrium. Too many journalists, whether eager to demonstrate their radical centrism or simply operating in profoundly bad faith because it benefits them financially, decline to confront demagoguery and by default end up promoting it.
Moreover, the process of demagogues inserting extremist ideas into public discourse has been exacerbated by the rise of social media, whose companies are so ineptly run a majority of Americans think they are bad for humanity, and whose algorithms amplify polarization and social division.
So, what happens when a president intentionally tries “seed” public opinion by saying crazy shit to the media and getting lots of coverage for it? During the 2016 presidential election, the priming effects of media coverage played a strong role in fomenting the rise of Donald Trump in a crowded field of Republican contenders. As Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy noted in a detailed analysis of how the press covered the election, even the negative coverage of Trump amounted to free advertising that ended up promoting his extremist views to the public — some of whom picked it up and adopted it as their own.
Because of the long-shot, often unpredictable nature of his candidacy the political press gave him far more coverage than any other candidate in the race — and that coverage, especially at first, was largely positive even from ostensibly “liberal” outlets. Yet, as the race proceeded a destructive misreading of the principle of fairness created an untrue perception of moral equivalence in the public eye. One candidate continuously to engage in racist speech against immigrants (and a whole host of other groups) while the other candidate did not, yet the media nevertheless covered Trump and Hillary Clinton in almost equally negative terms — a dynamic Patterson highlights as a major failure of political journalism:
If everything and everyone is portrayed negatively, there’s a leveling effect that opens the door to charlatans. The press historically has helped citizens recognize the difference between the earnest politician and the pretender. Today’s news coverage blurs the distinction.
Donald Trump was that charlatan. An analysis of word choices made in his public statements shows that he adopted a combative tone filled with demeaning language couched in categorical terms lacking nuance – especially toward the media, which guaranteed that the media would cover it. (After all, the one thing the press like to discuss more than anything else is the press.) While Trump was open about his efforts to manipulate the media, it was still a novel phenomenon to modern presidential politics, where the press don’t expect to be attacked as “enemies of the people” by either a campaign or an elected official. They were unprepared — typically, access journalism doesn’t require navigating this sort of challenge.
Thus, Trump’s use of shocking language and a combative stance “aided his cause as a candidate because it signaled a rejection of both the status quo and political convention to a constituency eager to see those things shaken up,” according to academic researchers. In other words, by attacking the media as often as he attacked a specific policy target, Trump guaranteed that his viewpoint would be widely disseminated. The press helped this process along and framed his ideas as anti-establishment, rather than extremist. As a result, media coverage of Trump’s controversial statements had the paradoxical effect of enabling more people to express similar ideas.
The mainstream press remains unprepared to counter the effects of radical right wing partisans masquerading as journalists. Extremist right wing outlets like Brietbart, Fox News, and InfoWars decisively shaped the broader media environment during the 2016 election by creating echo chambers that amplified fringe conspiracy theories (like PizzaGate) into the mainstream on the right. Once a fringe idea made it into those outlets, it received coverage in the traditional media outlets and spread further — despite skeptical coverage by ostensibly “liberal” outlets.
More worryingly, both The New York Times and the The Washington Post partnered in 2015 with Peter Schweizer, a Breitbart contributor and protégé of white supremacist Republican operative Steve Bannon, to disseminate portions of his anti-Clinton book under the guise of news coverage. It didn’t seem to matter to them that many of the claims in the book were unsubstantiated, that it misunderstood the basic operating of federal agencies and the law, or that it often segued into conspiracy theories. The blurring of earnestness and charlatans that Patterson described was enacted into editorial policy at two of the country’s largest and most influential news outlets.
When these mainstream outlets partnered with a radical partisan to direct their coverage of only one candidate in the race, they demonstrated how the modern political media is an environment in which demagogic language can get amplified through alternative media and seem mainstream much more effectively than in previous eras. This means that President Trump’s untraditional use of language to incite opposition to immigration has had a deeper effect on the public than it would have in previous eras. It is sort of new territory for everyone, and there remains a lot of study to be done about how this is going to play out.
However, it is not a given — not yet, anyway — that President Trump is turning the country against immigrants. Backlash to harsh policies like family separation and the travel ban suggest that there are limits to how far a president can push the public at any point in time. But the public does change over time, and it’s worth exploring how they both influence and are influenced by this process as well.
Immigration is not the most emotionally charged political debate in America today (abortion is far more emotional). But immigration sits at the nexus of several extremely emotional topics like identity, race, class, and inclusiveness (here is an excellent book on this intersection). But does the public lead or follow how political leaders behave and pass laws? As is becoming a theme, the answer is a bit complicated.
In a recent study that examined how sentiments expressed on Twitter changed in relation to an extremist anti-immigration law passed in Arizona, Rene Flores found that anti-immigrant policies can “stir the pot” and mobilize anti-immigrant individuals. This mobilization effect was narrowly targeted at the target of the policy, so in this case the mobilization against Latinos did not result in a mobilization against immigrants from outside Latin America or against racial minorities more broadly. Even so, the effect is real — racist people really do get emboldened by racist policy and racist language from leaders, and create the impression that racism is growing in popularity. Even if it’s limited to a single scapegoat of a group, it matters and is measurable.
And this emboldening can be contagious. What we think of as “the public” is not the sum total of everyone in a community — it is usually a combination of the most vocal, those most willing to speak up to journalists or to respond to instruments like surveys. A major challenge to creating any sort of poll is a respondent giving answers that reflect the assumed biases of the polling company, rather than their own beliefs. In elections were race is a factor, this is called the Bradley Effect, whereby people will tell pollsters they’ll vote for a minority candidate but intend to vote for a white candidate; more broadly in surveys it’s called the response bias. Such bias, especially when not accounted for in a survey’s design, can have a major effect on how the media frame an issue that’s based on such a survey, and thus snowball unpopular opinions to a perceived popularity.
To recap: we have a mechanism for how normalizing anti-immigrant attitudes with anti-immigrant policies can change the perception of public opinion on a topic both by making anti-immigrant people more vocal and by inspiring others who may think it is expected to be anti-immigrant to voice those sentiments. Think of how politicians bandwagon on catch phrases like “of course we should enforce the law” when they really want to change the law in a more humane direction (there’s also the opposite, overenforcement, which is how the Trump White House justifies its cruelty toward migrants). The feedback loop of media covering racist perspectives on immigration as if they’re mainstream creates the perception effect that immigrants are less accepted than they really are, which can have a dampening effect on how pro-immigrant people mobilize. In other words, opinion and perception don’t exist in a vacuum — they can both drive outcomes and be shaped by the media and political environment.
As an example, consider how Trump’s first campaign speech, wherein he called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, resonated in previously fringe areas of white grievance politics. Marilyn Mao, of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that the white supremacist movement had been “energized” by the rhetoric he deployed to talk about immigrants. Stormfront, a white supremacist website, fulsomely praised Trump in the earliest days of his campaign; former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has repeatedly praised Trump; and the neo-nazi Richard Spencer celebrated the election with a Nazi salute while screaming “Heil Trump.”
Groups that previously acted as marginal began to act like they were mainstream. The media dutifully followed the trend and flooded the zone with chummy profiles of white supremacists that portrayed them as if they were valid members of society instead of the outcasts they were just a year previously. This is a feedback loop, whereby the perception of white supremacy being mainstream leads to media treatment of it as mainstream — and it can lead to regular people thinking it is a mainstream belief, too.
The data about how emboldened white supremacy has become is worrying. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said that Trump’s use of dehumanizing rhetoric was being “taken as a permission-giving by criminal elements who go out and act on their words.” Hate crimes are rising precipitously, and there are worrying signs that police forces are actively collaborating with far right and white supremacist protest leaders even at the federal level. The mainstreaming of this belief system is measurable, and it is growing: a recent Pew survey found a majority of Americans think that race relations are getting worse, and think this division is being driven by Donald Trump and his administration.
However, it is not yet clear that Trump’s rhetoric has influenced the overall attitude of the public toward immigrants. A recent national survey shows that while only 45% of Americans know most immigrants are in the country legally, a supermajority of Americans feel sympathy toward all immigrants, both documented and undocumented. And over the last two decades, public opposition to immigration has dropped dramatically and remains historically low compared to the early 1990s, even as the number of undocumented immigrants has fallen to historic lows. Among Latinos as well, there has a sea change in opinion about immigration: in 2002 around half felt there were too many Latino immigrants, while now around half think there are just the right amount. So the public isn’t necessarily being led by the nose about a nativist crackdown.
But other public sentiment polls suggest that the White House’s sharply negative rhetoric toward immigrants is having an effect. In mid-2018, Gallup reported a sharp increase in the number of Americans who said immigration was the top problem facing the country, and this number has held steady for over a year. There is some nuance here, as it is unclear whether the top problem is immigration per se, or just illegal immigration, or the problematic way this administration has chosen to respond to it. Either way, this change in sentiment appears to be a reaction to an entirely invented crisis: for fiscal year 2017, the last year for which there was data from the Obama administration, the C.B.P. reported border apprehensions had dropped to a 30-year low. A year later, after the Trump administration implemented its various anti-immigrant policies, apprehensions began to spike again (but still remained historically very low).
How could people perceive there to be a historic problem when the government’s own data show the opposite? Part of it is enforcement: before Trump changed the rules governing how ICE and CBP handle asylum seekers, people who filed a protection claim could be released with the stipulation that they check in periodically with the agency or a designated social workers. The program had a 99% check—in rate. Trump ended that program (and a few others like it) and caused a sudden spike in the number of people being placed into detention. The stress on the system that officials point to as a justification for poor conditions inside the camps is invented. It doesn’t have to be a stress; the president wants it to be a stress.
The president shapes the national agenda by inventing controversy, like the border crisis. This isn’t just a question of language choices and rhetoric — there is a genuine humanitarian crisis at the border, but it is the result of deliberate choices to harm immigrants, not any resource or policy gap that’s being exploited (though smugglers do manipulate people into migrating with false promises).
In January of 2019, a leaked memo from the Department of Homeland Security shows that during a period of historically low migration, the federal government drafted a policy to specifically target families seeking asylum for mistreatment in the hopes that such mistreatment would deter other migrants. They made this decision after closing down in-country asylum processing centers in Central America in 2017. This is what’s known as a “pull factor” — by closing down centers in the region, the administration forced asylum-seeking migrants to journey to the border if they wanted to file a protection claim. (This is apart from the many structural “push” factors inspiring people to leave their homes, and the other “pull” factors that make the U.S. uniquely attractive as a destination). Lastly, the White House had declined to assign additional resources to fairly house migrants who await hearings or to expand the courts and personnel needed to adjudicate claims — rather, the president has focused on misusing the military and misappropriating funds to build a wall that won’t address the current backlog of people trapped in abusive conditions.
This gap in perceptions is something the administration is counting on: they assume most people won’t realize the crisis is entirely self-generated with the intent of imposing cruelty. And that is because the public can also exert influence on policy. When the first news broke of the family separation policy, the outcry was sustained and fierce — to the point of directly confronting officials in public during their “off” hours. The massive amount of pressure exerted by people outraged by the sight of young children screaming for their parents and sleeping on concrete floors in cages was amplified by friendly media coverage. The onslaught made it impossible for officials to get their own messages into the public, and after several months they relented… sort of (abusive policies and treatment have continued, including ripping apart families, but with far less transparency).
More recently, efforts to expose the ongoing abuse of young children in immigration detention has had a harder time gaining traction. Outrage fatigue is real and it limits just how often the public can be mobilized — especially when it results in minimal or no change at the policy level (the immunity of the Trump administration to broad public opposition at most of its policies is surely an interesting dissertation topic an aspiring political scientist could examine in detail).
Activists also struggle to maintain public pressure on officials because of a mass mobilization of disinformation onto social media to push misleading narratives about immigrants approaching the southern border — some of them are bots, many are essentially citizen propagandists motivated by profoundly bath faith about the issue and fed talking points by a vast right-wing media ecosystem. As a result, public comments on news about migrants is filled with hateful, dehumanizing speech about children in cages, as if their lack of an immigrant visa means they should be denied things like soap and toothbrushes. By employing FUD — fear, uncertainty, doubt — and the public’s gap in knowledge, the Trump administration hopes to get away with its dehumanizing abuse of the people in detention.
Surveys show that American attitudes toward immigration are more complex than simply pro- or con, no matter what the weird signal boosting of social media algorithms might have you believe. Americans tend to have two competing desires: a general sense that immigration should be reduced or kept low but also a strong sense that refugees should be admitted, families reunified, and skilled labor from abroad recruited. The combination of both instincts gives a broad leeway for what might be considered mainstream in immigration policy. As leaders respond to these different competing desires, immigration policy can shift dramatically while still being broadly within the realm of “supported by the public.”
The contradictory impulses of the public also provide an opportunity for activists to shift the narrative. Groups like RAICES have dramatically grown due to an influx of donations, and given their mission they have a lot of power to frame an agenda during media coverage — assuming a journalist can be convinced to stray outside official sources while reporting a story.
Seen in this light, then, there remains an opportunity to continue to constrain the worst abuses of the Trump administration through continued public outreach and sustained pressure on his officials who are enforcing them. A minority of the public believes that the abusive conditions at the detention camps justify calling them “concentration camps,” but recent Congressional delegations to the border, along with investigative journalism, has the potential to further shift opinion.
How to Respond
To recap: we have established that presidential rhetoric is powerful and can influence the public. We have established that it has a powerful role in shaping how the media choose to cover certain issues and in what way. And we have established that the current president has a unique propensity for using divisive language to trigger and amplify white grievance politics.
This means the way the president has approached the topic of immigration is inherently fraught — it is a highly emotional topic that often works at a subliminal level of visceral reactions, and is rarely connected to real-world data and facts. Yet, as Adam Serwer puts it, whether America can continue as a multi-racial democracy is an existential question for the 2020 election — not just for the United States, but globally. It is literally a question of whether a liberal (lowercase-L) society, which is to say one that protects fundamental freedoms and rights of all citizens not just the ethnic majority — can exist. But all isn’t lost; after all, he notes:
A plurality of Americans in 2016 and 2018 voted against defining American citizenship in racial terms, something that has perhaps never happened before in the history of the United States. There was no anti-racist majority at the dawn of Reconstruction, during the heyday of immigration restriction, or in the twilight of the civil-rights movement. The voters of this coalition may yet defeat Trumpism.
There’s a lot that individual, normal people can do to oppose racism expressed as anti-immigration coming from the top.
Decide to act
Delegitimizing immigrants through hate speech and abusive policies must be considered unacceptable in a civil society. It’s a given that citizens cannot exist equally if the government is using its vast power to single out non-white groups for censure and mistreatment; but the same holds true for non-citizens as well (nowhere in the constitution are non-citizens exempted from the protections of the Bill of Rights). Karl Popper famously called it the paradox of tolerance: “In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society much be intolerant of intolerance.” This means choosing to be intolerant of intolerance on an individual basis, and behaving accordingly.
Think of it as an immune response: endless studies have demonstrated conclusively that immigration is good for societies. This isn’t some fuzzy argument about cultural mixing, either: economists published peer-reviewed research in March, 2019, that showed conclusively that immigrants are good for the economy. Even within the United States, the counties that had more immigration between 1850 and 1920 had higher income, less poverty, less unemployment, higher rates of urbanization, and more education than counties with less immigration.
And think of the public outcry to the first Muslim travel ban, and to the first round of family separation at the southern border: deciding to act works. Public outcry works. So choose to participate in the outcry.
There is an art to speaking truth to someone who is unwilling to hear it. When someone uses racist language, identify it in plain language.
Astonishingly, this has been a challenge for many political journalists for a variety of reasons behind the scope of this essay. Indeed, as we noted earlier, the simple act of covering how the president talks about immigration can itself do damage by amplifying racist ideas and reframing the discussion in a way that downplays the humanity of the people under discussion.
Margaret Sullivan has one idea: a “truth sandwich,” whereby a false or racist claim is contextualized before and after with facts that demonstrate its falsity or abusiveness.
This is not a carte blanche to be a jerk while speaking plainly (though that sometimes might be warranted). Rather, think through how to use plain language to cut through the weasel words and justification someone might be using to defend the indefensible: What do you mean by that? Do you realize why it’s hurtful? Do you care?
Sometimes a person might not care that they’re being hurtful. If so, it is important to talk plainly about that, too: jerks need to be identified as jerks.
Do Not Fear Confrontation
In 2017, Richard Spencer, a white nationalist notorious for leading a ballroom in Nazi salutes while yelling “Heil Trump” during the election and leading tiki-torch wielding white people shouting “Jews will not replace us” at the Charlottesville Nazi rally, was working out at a gym in Alexandria, Virginia. He did this not only because most people don’t know who he is, but because he counts on being able to “pass” into polite society when he really has no business being there.
A professor at Georgetown confronted Spencer, loudly condemning his white supremacist views and demanding he leave the gym. The gym agreed and barred him from working out there.
Some other examples of confronting the people who promote inhumane treatment of non-white people:
- During the height of the child separation policy, then-secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Kristen Nielsen decided to eat at a Mexican restaurant in Washington DC (the optics of which went unremarked upon in the coverage). A network of activists spotted her and confronted her, publicly, yelling “shame” until she left.
- In Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was confronted by another group of protesters, part of a series of public confrontations over his conduct as Majority Leader.
- Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to Donald Trump widely viewed as the architect of his racist immigration policy, was cursed at by a bartender as he picked up takeout sushi.
- Sarah Huckabee Sanders, then the White House spokesperson, was confronted at a restaurant for making the staff uncomfortable by her very presence and was politely asked to leave.
These incidents did not on their own change the terms of the immigration debate. What they did was demonstrate that holding odious views and enacting them as policy is unacceptable in polite society, and that those who defend and enact such policies will not be accepted in normal society. The people who defend this conduct are desperate to be accepted — denying them that acceptance is painful, and far less painful than the way immigrants are treated by this administration.
There is a trap in this approach, which is the dreaded cry of “civility.” This is where the above point about speaking plainly becomes important. Civility does not include letting teenagers vomit to death from the flu in a crowded cell because CBP guards deny him medical treatment. Civility does not include ripping infants away from their parents and causing permanent emotional trauma as a “deterrent” to claiming asylum. It isn’t civil to pack people so tightly in freezing cells with nothing more than a shared sleeping pad and aluminum blanket that they can’t even lie down.
Civility is a two-way street. Don’t let the abusers hide behind it. Speak the plain truth about abuse and abusive behavior — don’t let someone pretend to be normal when they are an abuser.
Understand — And Communicate — The Bigger Picture
When the president talks about immigration it isn’t just about immigration. His administration intentionally broke the immigration courts to create a backlog of cases and to crowd detention facilities. He manufactured a humanitarian crisis to create urgency and demand a resolution on his terms.
Trump’s primary financier and patron. Robert Mercer, is an investor in the private security companies that operate these camps — their investments in these companies have paid off at exorbitant rates since they began filling up with migrant children.
It’s also not about crime of the economy. People aren’t trying to immigrate to the U.S. because they want to hurt the country. The reason people are flooding to the borders is part of a regional cluster of challenges, from violence to institutional failures to the long legacy of disastrous U.S. policies toward Latin America. But these immigrants commit far less crime than native citizens; and cities that welcome large numbers of immigrants are more economically successful than those that don’t. The economic argument favors more immigration, not less.
Consider the president saying he wants to increase immigration from Norway and to decrease it from countries he called “shitholes.” The clear implication is that white Europeans are “good,” while non-white people from outside Europe are “bad” (there are sometimes allowances made for people of Asian heritage, based on damaging stereotypes about academic performance). The type of “acceptable” non-white immigrant changes over time, too. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is only the first example of restricting immigration explicitly on race; others include mass opposition to Italians, Irish, and Southern Europeans more generally. Each type of restriction revolves around who gets to be “white.”
Not for nothing, but before 1970 people from Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico were considered “white” in official government records. It was years of advocacy by activists that got the new racial category “Hispanic” added to the 1970 census. The question of who gets to be considered “white” in America is always up for negotiation, but the one constant is that whiteness is “good” and non-whiteness is “bad.” America’s original sin, white supremacy, is inescapable in this discussion.
The bigger picture here isn’t that racial exclusions are okay; but rather that they’re not. In the 21st century restricting immigration based on Catholicism sounds bizarre and vaguely illegal; yet the administration convinced the Supreme Court under dubious reasoning to allow an explicit ban on the basis of a country having an Islamic majority. The targets will always change over time, but the central belief system of white supremacy remains the same.
So what to do?
There is no one thing that an individual person can do to combat the white supremacy being expressed as immigration policy at the White House. Deciding to act, using plain language, embracing confrontation when necessary, and communicating the bigger picture about these policies and words will not end the problem overnight.
Aldous Huxley, in the introduction to Brave New World, said “The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.” He was drawing on a long line of similar statements stretching back to the early 19th century, but his including of “common humanity” is what strikes me as being especially germane. Immigration is often deliberated outside the bounds of what we would consider to be a question of liberties — immigration courts operate under a separate system of laws and rights than do normal courts, and the courts have decided that an undocumented migrants can still have “due process” even if they’re never offered the chance to challenge proceedings in court.
This is a long term challenge, and it can only be addressed with a view toward the long term.
Considering the basic humanity of the people in question, therefore, brings the discussion beyond a legalistic parsing of regulations toward a fundamental question of fairness, dignity, and justice. Arriving at a border without documentation is not an excuse for abusive, dehumanizing treatment, and no one advocating such a thing should be allowed to do so without challenge.
So, knowing how this rhetoric can propagate and infect the public discourse like a meme, and how to fight back against that rhetoric, is a vital first step toward reversing the abuses happening in our name.